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White House Stifled Evidence of Climate Change Health Risks

WASHINGTON, DC, July 8, 2008 (ENS) – Officials in the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office pressured federal health and environmental officials to edit congressional testimony to downplay the public health impacts of climate change, according to a former senior official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Senior Senate Democrats contend the allegations of Jason Burnett, the EPA’s former top climate advisor, add to evidence of a concerted effort by the Bush administration to mislead the public about the risks of climate change and to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.


Senator Barbara Boxer of California
(Photo courtesy EPW)

“This cover-up is being directed from the White House and the Office of the Vice President,” said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “History will judge this Bush administration harshly for recklessly covering up a real threat to the people they are supposed to protect.”

Boxer held a press briefing today to release a July 6 letter from Burnett, an economist who initially worked at the EPA from 2004 through 2006 before resigning due to disagreements over an air pollution rule.

A rare Democrat within the Bush administration, Burnett agreed in 2007 to return to the agency as a climate advisor.

Burnett resigned last month in protest over the EPA’s decision to block California from setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. Under the Clean Air Act, California has the unique power to enact stricter clean air laws than the federal government, but only if the EPA issues a waiver of federal standards. Once California has its waiver, other states can adopt the stricter standard. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson has declined to issue the waiver, and California has sued seeking to secure it from the federal agency.

After his resignation, Burnett announced his intention to campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.

Burnett told Boxer that both the White House and Cheney’s office intervened to edit the written testimony of Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, who testified before Boxer’s committee last October.


Julie Gerberding, MD
(Photo courtesy CDC)

Although the CDC chief noted the serious public health concerns associated with climate change during her remarks, some six pages of her written testimony expanding on the issue were deleted at the behest of the Bush administration.

Officials with the White House and Cheney’s office requested the removal of “any discussion of the human health consequences of climate change,” wrote Burnett, who declined to tell reporters who specifically called for the changes.

Burnett’s letter also details efforts by the administration to influence the EPA’s response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s April 2007 decision in the case of Massachusetts vs EPA. The ruling requires the agency determine whether greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health. An “endangerment” finding would require the EPA to take action to regulate and limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The agency has yet to comply with the ruling – a coalition of 17 states and three major U.S. cities have filed suit in protest.

Last December, Burnett emailed the White House the EPA’s preliminary finding that greenhouse gas emissions “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public welfare.”

According to Burnett, the White House subsequently asked him not to send the finding.

“When we explained that the document had been sent, I was asked to send a follow-up note saying that the email had been sent in error,” Burnett wrote. I explained that I could not do this because it was not true.”


Heat waves like this one are forecast
to increase in frequency and intensity.
(Photo courtesy NOAA)

The former EPA advisor noted that he was also asked by the White House to retract the message, adding that he refused to comply.

The White House refused to open the email, Boxer said, and “the finding was left in limbo.”

Boxer told reporters the administration’s censorship of the CDC chief’s testimony was part of a “master plan” to weaken EPA’s response to the Supreme Court ruling.

Gerbering’s original testimony detailed a long list of serious public health consequences of climate change, Boxer noted, including direct health and safety effects of severe weather events, health effects from air pollution, allergic diseases, mental health problems, food and water scarcity, and an increase in vector, food and water-borne diseases.

“CDC’s work clearly would lead us to the endangerment finding,” Boxer said.

Burnett contends the administration also sought to alter testimony by EPA Administrator Johnson given to Boxer’s committee on the denial of the California waiver.

Officials from the White House and Cheney’s office called on Burnett to edit Johnson’s testimony to “avoid the phrase ‘greenhouse gas emissions harm the environment,’” the former EPA deputy administrator wrote in the July 6 letter.

“I declined to accept the suggestion … in the end this part of the administrator’s testimony remained as EPA had written it,” Burnett wrote.

Boxer called on Johnson to release “every document” related to EPA’s consideration of whether greenhouse gases endanger public health and to immediately release a notice of proposed rulemaking on how it intends to cut emissions.

Senator Boxer has scheduled a hearing on the issue for July 22 and threatened to subpoena the documents if necessary.

“This is not about me, or about Mr. Johnson, or President Bush, or Vice President Cheney or Mr. Burnett,” she said. “It is about protecting the public and the planet.”

Concerns about the Bush administration’s interference with climate science are hardly new, as the White House has faced a barrage of criticism in the past few years for meddling with climate reports to downplay concerns about global warming.

A report released last year by government watchdogs found that nearly half the 279 climate scientists who responded to a survey reported being pressured to delete references to “global warming” or “climate change” from scientific papers or reports and many said they were prevented from talking to the media or had their work edited.

By J.R. Pegg

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